David Penhaligon – 1986 Speech on the Tin Industry

Below is the text of the speech made by David Penhaligon, the then Liberal MP for Truro, in the House of Commons on 24 January 1986.

I wish to launch into what may not be the easiest of tasks. I want to achieve an application of the collective mind of the Department of Trade and Industry to the tin crisis, which affects my county and parts of London, instead of the other difficulty that has received a considerable amount of publicity this week.

There are two collective problems, one of which caused the other. However, the solution to one of those problems does not necessarily mean that the other will be solved. The question that is constantly being raised in the House —I have raised it several times, and the hon. Member for St. Ives (Mr. Harris) has also raised it several times—is what will the Government do? I can tell the Minister that in Cornwall there is more interest in the Government’s reply to that matter than in the Westland saga.

The saga begins in London at the London metal exchange. As is well known, the international tin agreement has collapsed and the market was closed towards the end of October 1985. Various rescue bids have been launched. During Question Time yesterday the Prime Minister expressed optimism about the possible conclusion of the latest rescue attempt. I must say that the Prime Minister’s optimism was greater than that expressed by the people who are involved on a day-to-day basis.

The crisis has been going on for three months, and business is already leaving London. Some people believe that the saga could lead to the end of commodity dealing in London and the reneging on international debts by major financial powers. Whatever the outcome, it is certain that the price of tin will fall, and it is at that stage that Cornwall becomes involved.

I am one of those in Cornwall who have long taken the view that hard-rock mining is on a pleasant growth pattern and is likely over the next decade, two decades or three decades to make an increasing contribution to the Cornish economy. I and others who share my view do not expect hard-rock mining to return to the levels of production of 140 or 150 years ago, but we have no doubt that hard-rock mining, given Cornwall’s mineral structure, can make a major contribution to the local economy.

In the 1960s, the average production of tin was about 1,500 tonnes a year. In the 1970s the average was 3,000 tonnes. In 1984, it exceeded 5,000 tonnes for the first time this century. Tin is not the only metal that is mined. Cornwall produced 7,500 .tonnes of zinc, 750 tonnes of copper and 2·5 tonnes of silver in the past mining year. At October 1985 prices, the value of this output was about £50 million to the balance of payments.

Against this background there were developments in the offing. The two mines in my constituency, Concorde and Cligga, obtained permission to begin production and they are now preparing to launch themselves into it.

Mr. Robert Hicks (Cornwall, South-East)

I should like to substantiate the argument that is being advanced by the hon. Gentleman. There are no non-ferrous mines in my constituency, but major prospecting is taking place and boreholes are being sunk at Redmoor near Callington. The ​ determination of the ultimate viability of the project, which it is estimated will produce 300 jobs, will be reflected by the overall price of tin on the world market. The hon. Gentleman is making an important point.

Mr. Penhaligon

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that intervention, which reflects the general picture of growth. Only six months ago, reasonable men would have extrapolated growth. There are about 1,500 on the industry’s payroll, in Cornwall but it is an industry that does a good deal of subcontracting and the actual number employed by the industry, directly and indirectly, is considerably greater than 1,500. The industry claims—this has not been challenged—that it contributes about £23 million a year to the economy. That contribution is made mostly in west Cornwall. It is a worthwhile figure and one that should not be cast aside lightly.

We are talking about an area that is in the midst of the country’s employment blackspot. In Falmouth, 26·7 per cent. of males of working age are unemployed. The figures for Penzance, Redruth, and Helston are 28·4 per cent., 23·8 per cent. and 25·4 per cent. respectively. A quarter of the male population in the area that is most affected is already unemployed. Thankfully, Truro comes in at fifth place in the unemployment league at about 15 per cent.

The industry has been aware for some time that the cartel price at which tin was being traded could not be sustained ad infinitum. It was well aware that if the industry was to continue to prosper and grow, it would have to succeed in competing in a free market. It was under no illusions and it recognised that the price of tin in a free market would be less than that at which the commodity had recently been traded on the London market.

The industry had been making vigorous preparations for the commencement of a free market. Even the most realistic among the mining personnel thought that the day was at least two years further on from today, but preparations were clearly being made made, and most obviously at the three really important mines, the Wheal Jane complex, South Crony and the mine in Penzance which is called Geevor. Geevor is a good illustration of the effort that is being made to enable the mines to modernise themselves and to compete in a free market. Money has already been invested in a new mill at Geevor, which will double its capacity to treat available ore. Half of the ore comes from the old Geevor mine. It is good quality ore, and well worth treating. The other half comes from the old rubbish dumps of years ago. The mine is investing an enormous amount so that it can run into the old Botallack and Lezant mines for further sources of good quality ore to allow the mill to work at full capacity with good material. If the improvement is completed, the mine will be able to compete in the free market.

We have to deal with the present crisis and the mines are in the worst of all positions. They have lost the higher price that they were enjoying, but have enormous financial commitments. Large sums have already been spent on improving the mines. Unfortunately, although the money has been half spent, the efficiency gain has not been half felt. Indeed, no efficiency gains have been felt so far. If improvement work were terminated today, no improvements in efficiency would have been made.

The simple question for the Minister is, “Will the Government help?” Will they help towards meeting development costs to improve the efficiency of mines so ​ that they can compete in a free market? If the will exists, there are half a dozen ways in which financial assistance could be given. The county, the miners and their families want to know whether the Government will help. Does the will exist? Will the Government help Cornwall at this tragic time?

I am not pleading for a lame duck industry. The dominant employer in my constituency is English China Clays, which this year declared a profit of £74 million. I do not know what the Treasury takes from that profit, but I have a feeling that it is considerably more than zero.

We are merely asking the Government to realise that mining is a high-risk industry and to act as an honest broker in the middle, sometimes assisting mines when they get into difficulties that are not necessarily long-term or terminal.

On Wednesday next week, about 500 tin miners from my county will be lobbying Parliament. The Cornish anthem, “Shall Trelawny die?” includes the line

“Here’s twenty thousand Cornish men will know the reason why!”

There are not 20,000 Cornishmen coming to London on Wednesday, but a lot more than 20,000 in Cornwall want to know whether the Government will assist the Cornish tin industry and, if so, to what extent.

If no assistance is forthcoming, at least some of the mines will undoubtedly close for all time. A couple may be held on standby for half a decade or so in the expectation that the tin price will rise again. If the Government refuse to assist at this crucial time, the growth that has taken place over the past couple of decades will stop and the production of Britain’s only significant mineral resource will cease. I cannot believe that that would be a logical or rational outcome. I look to the Government for an assurance that they are willing to assist the Cornish tin industry through the tragedy confronting it.